WASHINGTON – It takes a man of God to draw at least 9,000 people on his birthday to the South Lawn of the White House.
President George W. Bush and Laura Bush welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to the White House on Wednesday,the pope's 81st birthday,with a ceremony on the South Lawn.
“Birthdays are traditionally spent with close friends,so our entire nation is moved and honored that you've decided to share this special day with us,” said Bush,after the crowd sang an impromptu “Happy Birthday” when the pope arrived.
This is Pope Benedict's first visit to the U.S. as pope. Bush and the pope met in the Oval Office following the ceremony.
Guests on the lawn included Catholic clergy,religious representatives,local Catholic school children,and members of the Boy Scouts,Girl Scouts,Sisters of the Poor and the Knights of Columbus.
A little girl in a pink,flowered dress leaned over the white rope blocking the crowd to wave her handmade sign for the pope. In red,white and blue,it read: “Welcome Pope Hope.”
Bush's remarks echoed the little girl's sign. He said the ability of faith and reason to exist in harmony is a pillar of the United States,and has made the country a “beacon of hope and opportunity” for millions.
Bush said the U.S. is among the most religious and open to the pope's message,which he said everyone needs.
“In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate,we need your message that ‘God is love,'” said Bush,over applause from the crowd.
Bush and the pope drew parallels to religious liberty in the U.S. Bush said,on which the country was founded. The pope said he will take advantage of this freedom,under which believers may worship without being rejected,to meet with other Christians and members of other religions.
“Freedom is not only a gift,but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience,” the pope said. “It is a challenge held out to each generation,and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good.”
Opera star Kathleen Battle performed “The Lord's Prayer” and led a formal birthday serenade. The U.S. Army Chorus and the Marine Band also performed.
Vice President and Lynn Cheney,along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress,also attended the ceremony.
Tuesday marked the beginning of the pope's visit to the U.S.,with a rare presidential greeting at Andrews Air Force Base. Late Wednesday,he was scheduled to meet with bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here. Pope Benedict will celebrate Mass Thursday morning to an expected crowd of 47,000 at the city's new baseball stadium.
He will travel to New York on Friday and speak at the United Nations,where he said he hopes to encourage efforts to make the organization a “legitimate voice” for the world.
“America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs,fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes,” the pope said. “This concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress.”